Bothies: Why I love themPosted: October 13, 2011
I love bothies. They’re always a welcome place to shelter, dry out clothes and get something to eat before a bit of a kip. Some are in better repair than others; the lower floor of Shenaval wasn’t useable, last time I stayed there. Some have strange quirks; Sourlies in Knoydart will smoke you out, first time you try to light the fire, because the chimney doesn’t draw properly at first. A’chuil bothy during a storm is one of the creepiest places I’ve been, with rodents large enough to move my canteens about on the table, but the best open-air bath (pool in a stream running off the hillside) I’ve ever had. Camasunary on Skye is probably my favourite, as it holds many memories for me. I’ve been there many times, in all seasons. One stormy night, we had approximately twenty five people in there, including a party of Germans from Dusseldorf who thought that they had rented the building (wrong!), a party of Dutch sea-canoeists, and sundry Brits, all sheltering from some filthy weather. The storm surged up to the grass at the front of the bothy, and we had to drag the Dutch canoes behind the building to prevent them being swept out to sea.
Another thing I love about bothies is the craic. The kind of people who enjoy being out in the wild, removed from most of the comforts of modern life, tend to have things in common. With a few notable exceptions, most of my encounters with people in bothies have been great, and worthy of a few stories. One particular girl from Hamburg, with lycra cycling shorts, will likely stay with me until my last breath. That same trip had a group of Geordies from Benwell, who went up and down the beach, picking up plastic fish crates. They then proceeded to set a fire in the other room, despite an abundance of firewood stacked by other walkers. We sat and watched in amused horror, as a black plume of toxic plastic by-products fountained out of the chimney, settling down around the bothy, like a carcinogenic umbrella. Nice one lads. We were visited by Aqua-Man during that same trip, an individual who seemed congenitally unable to cross water more than a metre wide without lying down in it. Sending him across the river to get fresh water had predictable consequences, not least of which was that he returned with the empty water container! Friendly, yes, coordinated, no!
One chap we encountered, in Sourlies and A’chuil, was a quiet, very well-spoken fell runner. The first night, he had been sociable, but quite quiet, apart from mentioning an interest in poetry. One of my group, Mark, suggested that we might want to moderate our language (nothing too salty, but a little rough around the edges!), should we run into him at A’chuil the following night. As it turned out, he dropped in when he saw smoke rising from the chimney, and we were pleased to spend another evening with him. Drawn out a little about his interest in narrative verse, he agreed to recite a poem for us from memory. We settled down in the warmth of our sleeping bags, and listened to “The ballad of Eskimo Nell”. You could feel six grown men blushing from head to toe in the dark. For ten minutes, he poured forth a stream of unmitigated profanity, much to our amusement. Needless to say, Mark didn’t repeat his suggestion!
Another lad we met was convinced that the Gulf War was going to escalate into something global, and he spent a lot of his time in bothies, because of their remote placement. If the end of the world is coming, I can think of many worse places to be than Skye. Subsequently, I found his name in quite a few bothies across the highlands, “HH NFA”. Good lad.
Camasunary bothy seems to act as a magnet for interesting people. Another person I knew personally had turned up there, and ran into my friend HH. He wasn’t sure how to take this strange person, who spent a few days building furniture from driftwood and marine debris. The furniture was fine, but for one thing, it was too small to be used by anyone. Oh, and he named it too, Charlie Chaise-Longue being one that sticks in the mind. He also ran through every powdered material in the bothy, flinging it into the fire, to see if it went up with a whoosh. If that hadn’t been enough to let me know who it was, my friend also asked why the guy had a habit of sticking walking socks down the front of his tight climbing trousers. Last I heard, the guy is in the Royal Engineers, most likely being used as deadfall runway cratering ordnance.
Possibly the most interesting person I’ve met on my bothy travels was a guy we’ll call “Egg Banjo Man”, or Ian. He appeared at the bothy with a push-bike and panniers one day. All seemed normal until we started telling him the names of places. Gaelic is a difficult language, but we would tell him “That mountain is Bla bheinn, and that one is Marsco”, and he would repeat “Blaben, Marco”. Then the village at the end of the peninsula became “Elgo”. This happened so often that we thought that he had to be taking the micky, but apparently not. The strangeness continued when he was talking to two of my female friends on the grass outside the bothy. Skye grass is short and spiky, and you would notice if your personal gear dropped down out of your shorts into it. Well, so my friends thought, and were amazed / horrified to see him continue the conversation hunkered down as though nothing had happened. Never have I been happier to be climbing Bla Bheinn than when that happened.
If that had been the end of it, it would have been more than sufficient. Sadly, there was far more. Egg banjo man had also spent time travelling extensively abroad. Tales of hitchhiking seemed to revolve around being picked up in the United States by a gorgeous leggy lady in a good car. The trip would be going well, when the “lady” would turn out to be a man. There were several stories of this kind, indicating a theme. I don’t know the statistics for transvestites in the US, but I find this suspect. Another was that he hitched with a guy in Ohio who gave him some money to get out and buy them both a burger. While he was waiting for the food, he saw the driver throwing his rucksack out of the window and speeding back to the interstate. I cannot for the life of me imagine why.
My favourite egg banjo story was one where he was apparently walking in Southern Africa, near the border with Namibia. Being a somewhat unstable region, he sensibly asked to stay at a South African Police compound for the night. The only stipulation made was that he would have to be locked in, if he slept in a cell. Agreeing to this, he asked to be let out at 6AM to resume his journey, but recounted indignantly that they didn’t let him out until midday. Why, Ian, why?
Last in this gallery of horrors was how he came to have his nickname. Picture the scene – half a dozen hungry walkers, coming to the end of a fortnight in Skye. Rations are down to the scratchings in the bottom of our rucksacks. We are all sitting on a low wooden settee, built by the bothy’s previous inhabitants. It is close to the fire, as the day is quite cold. Immediately in front of us is Ian, cooking a dozen eggs on the open fire, and making an obscene stack of fried egg sandwiches. While cooking, he was sticking his behind in our faces, clad in those horrible short blue shorts. People were swaying about so much to avoid his gyrating rear end that you’d think we were aboard a ship in heavy weather. Worse than that was the fact that he then scoffed all of the egg sandwiches without offering a single bite to anyone.
Finally, a word of warning. When using remote bothies, take great care when opening the door at night; you never know what you will find. On a bright moonlit night, I almost died of fright when confronted by a pale horse, standing with his nose almost against the door. Not what you expect when away to answer a call of nature. Needless to say, the call was almost answered earlier than expected, but a glowing white horse by moonlight will give anyone a fright…